I am folding towels, warm against my hands, pressing them into neat lines, when Adam appears in the doorway, carefully balancing a mug in his hands. His fingers grip the sculpted handle, which is blue like a strip of summer sky arching over a field of yellow flowers. The mug is one of my favorites, and it surprises me to realize that he has gathered this fact and kept it. His other hand rests flat, opened up long and slender beneath the bottom of the mug, there both to steady the cup and to catch any errant drips. Adam watches the way the coffee swells close to the edge, a caramel-colored wave rising and falling as he walks. He bites his lip, lightly, lifting his eyes up to me and back to the mug, silently offering his gift.
And I am stunned that he thought of me. I say his name, more a gasp than a clear articulation, thanksgiving gushing after, and his lips curve in a faint smile. Doing is the weight of saying, and not the big grandiose things but the tiny, the daily, the sweet-in-the middle of the ordinary, the glisten of love on a crumbly day. Saying love finds shape in doing love, just as saying faith finds significance in living faith. We need the words, but with them, we need the substance of something held, something touched, something treasured. Doing love means what it says.
At first, we parents of childen with autism draw out the words, the articulations that frame relationships. I remember how I waited for the first time that my son would tell me on his own—not in response or repetition or because I prompted, but because he chose to say those words: I love you, Mom. And when at last he did—little boy with his hands on my shoulders, I cried. When your once-silent children speak, any words sound beautiful, but those words, those arms-around-me, reaching-into-me words; those how-I-know-you words signify a wealth of waiting. Those words are a door. Beyond it, we wonder if our children feel the words when spoken, if love means anything to them. Or, is it merely another ritual, the saying of love? Only now has Riley grown old enough to ask, often dozens of times in one day, about the meanings of words I thought she knew long ago, and Adam has yet to find his way to complicated questions.
We joke sometimes that Adam is like an old man trapped in a boy’s body, the way he holds affection for certain routines—eggs and bacon for breakfast, a cup of coffee at 4 in the afternoon. Among parents of children with autism, rigidity—with it’s iron-written reign—is water-cooler talk. But no one wants love that is merely routine.
Adam had asked me to make a pot of coffee before I walked upstairs, because that has become an uncompromising expectation, one motivating enough that he has learned how to make his own cup whenever he must. May I please have Mom making some coffee, please, he said, in those low, rich, careful tones. But most always, he has finished his own cup of coffee before I make it back downstairs—licking the last drops from the edge of the mug with his tongue, having learned a long time ago to serve himself. Adam’s routines are mostly self-satisfying at this point, bringing him comfort.
But today, he thought of pleasing me. In the middle of his routine, he selected my favorite mug, poured in sweet cream, filled coffee to the brim, and then traveled all the way up the stairs to find me, balancing the steamy cup. He served me first—just me. And I stood breathless, sipping the steam of love with shape, holding it warm in my hands.
And then it struck me, cutting deep, the way I can let saying love fall empty of doing, the way I can let loving God and loving people become a self-satisfying routine. And nobody wants loving that is merely a routine. God wants a love that thinks of Him, that stops in the middle of the routine and remembers what He wants, what He favors; a love that serves Him first, even if it means traveling far and balancing careful, even if it’s a risk that could swell and drip down, burning the yielded hands that carry the gift. And people, being made in His likeness, long for real love, too, the kind of love that takes creativity and has shape and feels weighty about the shoulders. The kind of love that’s always new, and sometimes even a surprise.
So now this, as my son turns to go, this lip-bitten prayer lifted with my hands open flat: Oh Lord, teach me to do love like that.
“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth (1John3:18).”